Before the arrival of Buddhism from India, Chinese religious activities had been performed in wooden buildings. Cave temples were introduced to China from India, where they were developed in response to poverty, heat and scarce building materials.

The emergence of the Mogao cave complex dominated early Chinese Buddhism, as pilgrims, monks and scholars passing along the Silk Road settled here to translate sutras. Merchants stopped too, endowing temples to ensure the success of their caravans and to benefit their souls. Huge numbers of artists and craftsmen were employed at Dunhuang, often lying on high scaffoldings in the dim light of oil lamps. The workers were paid a pittance – one document discovered at the site is a bill of indenture signed by a sculptor for the sale of his son.

The monastic community reached its peak under the Tang, with more than a thousand cave temples. Later, as ocean-going trading links supplanted the Silk Road, Mogao became increasingly provincial, until eventually the caves were sealed and abandoned in the fourteenth century.

In 1900 a wandering Taoist priest, Wang Yuanlu, stumbled upon Mogao and decided to make it his life’s work to restore the site, excavating caves full of sand, touching up the murals, and even building a guesthouse, which he financed through alms. His efforts might have continued in obscurity save for his discovery of a bricked-up chamber (cave 17), which revealed an enormous collection of manuscripts, sutras and silk and paper paintings – some 1000 years old and virtually undamaged. The Dunhuang authorities, having first appropriated a fair amount, had the cave resealed and so it remained until the arrival of Central Asian explorer Aurel Stein in 1907. Stein, a Hungarian working for the British Indian Survey, had heard rumours of the caves and persuaded Wang to reopen the chamber. This is how Stein later described what he saw:

Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly 10 feet and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet – an unparalleled archeological scoop.

This was no exaggeration. Among other manuscripts, Stein found original sutras brought from India by the Tang monk and traveller Xuanzang, Buddhist texts in many languages (even in some unknown to the scholar) and dozens of original Tang-dynasty paintings on silk and paper – all crushed but untouched by damp.

Donating the equivalent of £130 to Wang’s restoration fund, Stein left Mogao with some seven thousand manuscripts and five hundred paintings. Later the same year a Frenchman, Paul Pelliot, negotiated a similar deal, shipping thousands more scrolls back to Paris. And so, virtually overnight, the British Museum and the Louvre had acquired the core of their Chinese manuscript and painting collections.

Today the Chinese are pressing for the return of all paintings and manuscripts in foreign collections. It is hard to dispute the legitimacy of these claims, though had the treasures not been removed, more would almost certainly have been lost in the chaotic years of the twentieth century. Fortunately, despite the massive loss in terms of manuscripts and scrolls, the artwork at the caves themselves is still fabulously preserved.

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